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The United States is optimistic about Ukraine's discussions on joining the European Union at the EU Summit.
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The United States is optimistic about Ukraine’s discussions on joining the European Union at the EU Summit.

The highest ranking official in charge of European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. State Department conveyed hopefulness about Ukraine’s potential membership in the European Union, even though there is a possibility that Hungary may use their veto power to block it at a summit starting on Thursday that will last for two days.

The high-ranking member also forecasted that Russian leader Vladimir Putin will “hold out” until the outcomes of the 2024 European elections and the 2020 U.S. presidential election before attempting to resolve the conflict in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Nike Ching, VOA State Department bureau chief, interviewed James O’Brien, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, about challenges affecting countries in Eurasia.

According to O’Brien, Putin believes that his success lies in a decrease in support from Ukraine. Although he did not address domestic politics in the U.S., O’Brien stated that if President Biden is reelected, Putin’s aspirations will not be fulfilled.

European leaders are expected to make a decision this week on whether to initiate official discussions about Ukraine’s membership. Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary and a strong ally of Russia within the EU, is threatening to use his veto power to block this decision.

“What’s clear is the 26 members stand strong in favor of the union growing, including Ukraine once it’s ready, and continuing financial support, as well. He’s [Orban] one voice, and we’ll see how the discussion goes among the leaders once they’re made,” O’Brien told VOA.

O’Brien expressed approval of a prisoner exchange between Azerbaijan and Armenia on their border on Wednesday, viewing it as a major advancement in establishing a normal and mutually beneficial relationship between the two nations after years of hostility.

However, he downplayed the chances of the U.S. hosting the upcoming Azerbaijan-Armenia peace negotiations in Washington before the year’s end.

“We have limited time left this year. We will put forth our best effort,” stated O’Brien to VOA.

The interview below has been condensed and clarified for conciseness.

The nations of Azerbaijan and Armenia conducted a prisoner exchange at their shared border today. What is the significance of this event?

Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien stated that the recent communication and mutual agreements between the two countries are noteworthy. The announcement of a prisoner release last week was followed by the successful return of the prisoners this week. In a joint statement, both countries expressed support for each other’s international aspirations, such as Azerbaijan being awarded the COP hosting and Armenia’s international aspirations. This demonstration of support is crucial in establishing a positive bilateral relationship.

Can you provide an update on the current status of the United States’ relationship with Azerbaijan following your meeting in Baku? Is it expected that the State Department will welcome foreign ministers from Azerbaijan and Armenia before the year’s end?

O’Brien: We have expressed to both nations our willingness to assist in reaching a peace agreement. We have previously hosted multiple peace discussions between the two foreign ministers, and we are open to doing so again if it will aid in achieving a successful peace.

Can you clarify if this is referring to a specific time or event?

O’Brien: Unfortunately, our time for the year is limited. We will give it our all.

VOA: In the past night, Russian missiles were launched in Kyiv. The largest cyberattack affected Ukraine’s leading mobile operator. Can you discuss the most recent events, and what actions is the U.S. taking against Russian military procurement networks?

O’Brien: I believe it was beneficial for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to visit here. It’s evident that Ukraine has regained over half of the territory that Russia took since February 2022. They are making progress on the battlefield and have opened up their own Black Sea trade routes, which is crucial for their economic recovery. With the support from our European partners and ourselves, we are confident that Ukraine can build upon this success and emerge victorious in this conflict. This will result in a prosperous Ukraine, ready to join the European Union and transatlantic organizations such as NATO, which is beneficial for the security and prosperity of the United States.

A high-ranking American representative has stated that Russian leader Putin will not negotiate for peace in Ukraine until after the outcome of the U.S. election in November 2024. Do you concur with this evaluation?

I believe that President Putin is currently engaging in a diplomatic campaign, traveling to different nations and publicly discussing the possibility of war. He is attempting to convince others that he believes Russia has the advantage and will ultimately emerge victorious if the fighting continues. However, I believe this is just a bluff.

In my opinion, Russia is facing unfavorable long-term trends. Their only option may be to target civilian infrastructure, such as banks and residential areas in Kyiv and other cities, in hopes of causing enough suffering for Ukraine to seek peace. Alternatively, they must rely on the possibility of a major shift in international support for Ukraine. This is likely why they are waiting until after our election and possibly other European elections in the next year.

Can you please clarify if you are saying that Putin will only negotiate peace in Ukraine if President Biden is reelected, or if a Republican candidate is elected?

O’Brien: In my opinion, he is interested in the outcomes of elections in Europe and the United States. The European Union will hold elections next year. He believes that if Ukraine’s support decreases, it will benefit him. As for the US election, I cannot discuss domestic politics. However, President Biden stated yesterday, “I will not abandon Ukraine. I want to see Ukraine succeed, and it will.” This makes it clear that if President Biden is elected, President Putin’s hopes will not be realized.

VOA: Can you comment on the upcoming EU summit and potential veto from Hungary over Ukraine’s membership talks?

O’Brien: The upcoming meetings of the European Union leaders are significant moments in history. They will decide on providing financial aid to Ukraine for the next four years, as well as supporting reform efforts in the Western Balkan countries and potentially adding up to nine new countries to the EU, which would be a 33% increase in its size. While Prime Minister Orban has expressed his opinions on the matter, it is clear that the majority of the 26 members are in favor of the union’s expansion and continued financial support. His views are just one perspective and we will see how the discussions unfold among the leaders.